****/**** Image A Sound A-
starring Ryan O'Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kruger
screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray
directed by Stanley Kubrick
by Alex Jackson If The Shining has dated the most of Kubrick's films, Barry Lyndon, which immediately preceded it, has dated the least. In 1976, Barry Lyndon was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award alongside Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, and Nashville. I have some reservations about a couple of those, but there's no arguing that these are a few of the most revered American movies of the last four decades. And yet, they're all inextricably linked to the year 1975. Certainly, they still work on their own terms, but today there's an unspoken contract that we will acknowledge and accept them as something produced thirty-five years ago. We don't have to make any such concessions with Barry Lyndon; there isn't anything vintage about it.
Granted, comparing how well Barry Lyndon has aged with almost anything else isn't entirely fair. Aside from Spartacus, this is the only Kubrick film set in the distant past, affording him the privilege of historical research and the ability to appropriate, with a measure of objectivity, the actual look and feel of a period that is so abstract as to be timeless. The present is always changing, of course, and any snapshot of it will inevitably grow stale and obsolete with the new present. And any attempt to predict the future is going to be even more bound up in the present. Which is why 2001 screams the Sixties and A Clockwork Orange screams the Seventies despite the fact that both take place in the impending future. All it takes for A Clockwork Orange to betray its age is the appearance of vinyl and eight-tracks.
The only other film that might match the specific timelessness of Barry Lyndon is Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. While writing this, I was reminded of Terrence Malick's Badlands and Days of Heaven, neither of which has dated. (The Thin Red Line and The New World probably won't, either.) Maybe Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers belongs in the same category. But theirs is a different kind of timelessness. Those films are somehow tied in directly with the "real world." I'm not sure that I can articulate what I mean by "the real world," but as seen most clearly in The Thin Red Line and The New World, it's this sort of lifeforce that is always changing while paradoxically remaining constant. That's not the sort of timelessness to which I'm referring.
Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Barry Lyndon has the intimacy of artifice while sheltering itself from infection by a surrounding culture that reduces all cinema to ephemera. It's impossible to care about "real people" to the extent that we care about movie characters. Seeing the folks in Malick films wander around exuding their "human-ness" is a very alienating experience. Though one may watch in awed reverence, one won't really feel anything. By contrast, Barry Lyndon is a movie-movie--what we colloquially refer to as "Hollywood." The film idealizes the external world and gets us to focus on specific aspects of it. We relate to it in movie terms--it wants to make us laugh and cry. Generally, the intimacy one experiences through artifice is only truly potent in contemporary films. A film like Jaws still works, but it's never going to work as well as it did in 1975. Thirty years from now, it's going to work even less well. Barry Lyndon is never going to have this problem. People will be watching it and experiencing it in the same way for years to come. Its timeless quality elevates this "movie-movie" into the pantheon of great Film Art.
Barry Lyndon stands outside sociology and fashion. It's neither necessary nor especially insightful to look at what was happening in 1975 or the years leading up to it when reading the film. It probably helps to have a general grasp on popular American cinema (including stuff made AFTER Barry Lyndon) and an intimate understanding of Kubrick's oeuvre, but it's not imperative. You don't have to like or have seen all of Kubrick's films to appreciate Barry Lyndon. Indeed, I can imagine somebody claiming that this is the only film of his they like. This, however, is a review that examines Barry Lyndon in the context of other movies and in particular other Kubrick movies--I'm afraid I don't know any other way to go about it, although I would be interested to read a critique by someone unexposed or merely indifferent to Kubrick's work.
The key to this bifurcated film is a scene early in its second half where Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), recently married to Barry (Ryan O'Neal), asks him to stop smoking as they ride in a carriage together. Barry exhales a plume of smoke in her face, kisses her (I guess to maintain a semblance of affection while abusing her), and then turns back to his pipe. This could be an homage to James Cagney twisting a grapefruit in the face of his mistress in The Public Enemy, which had been a major influence on A Clockwork Orange. The association casts Barry as a gangster in 18th-century aristocratic drag. It's no surprise that Martin Scorsese, director of the anthropological The Age of Innocence and godfather of the modern gangster film, calls Barry Lyndon his favourite Kubrick.
Consider the basic plot of the picture's first half: Barry runs away from home upon duelling with, and apparently killing, an English captain (Leonard Rossiter) who poached his sweetheart. Needing employment, he joins the British army. He later defects, and en route is finagled into joining the Prussian army. Proving himself a brave but independent-minded soldier, Barry is chosen for an undercover operation. The man on whom he's sent to spy, the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee, the cuckold in A Clockwork Orange), is Irish, like him; Barry, having a greater fidelity to the Irish than to the Prussians, deserts yet again. He makes his living as a confederate to the duplicitous Chevalier, bringing Barry into the acquaintance of Lady Lyndon. Part I--subtitled "By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon"--ends with Lady Lyndon's sickly husband (Frank Middlemass) dying and Barry taking his place. Basically, Barry is a thug. He's talented in shooting, fencing, and boxing, and he's an excellent soldier on the battlefield. And his knack for violence is his means of advancing through society. Barry's stepson, Lord Bullingdon, regards him as an impostor and is disgusted that this Irishman of ignoble birth has married into the Lyndon family. Because Barry bulldozed his way up the echelons of society, he's something of an outsider. He doesn't belong among nobility and he knows it.
Ladies and gentlemen, we're in the territory of "The Sopranos" here. Barry Lyndon fits nicely in the tradition of gangster films as popularized by Scorsese, those pitch-black parodies of Horatio Alger. The protagonist goes from rags to riches by punching, stabbing, and shooting his way to the top. Once there, he finds himself at once alienated from his origins and unable to successfully assimilate into his new surroundings. The first, more episodic half of the film is pure exposition and gives off a somewhat folksy vibe (aided by Michael Hordern's droll narration) as Barry floats from adventure to adventure. In the second half, during which the film becomes altogether more "Kubrickian" (due in no small part to the increased use of tracking shots and zooms), Barry rots away in semi-retirement. Barry Lyndon mirrors There Will Be Blood in that sense, both films illustrating the fundamental ideological flaw in the American Dream: if you define yourself through the pursuit of success, how will you define yourself after you've achieved it?
If Barry Lyndon doesn't focus on the nihilistic despair of living a life without purpose quite as much as There Will Be Blood does, it's because Barry is ultimately too introverted to convey such despair. We never understand him like we understand There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview, and it's a struggle to think of him in the conventional terms of psychological motivation. There's a key moment late in the picture where the grown-up Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali, who would go on to be one of Kubrick's most trusted collaborators) challenges Barry to a duel. Bullingdon shoots first, but his gun misfires. Instead of exploiting this, Barry fires his gun into the ground. What prompts him to do this? Initially, I assumed that Barry was extending to his stepson a rare act of compassion. Perhaps Barry wants to show him that he is, in fact, a gentleman by refusing to claim unfair advantage, or perhaps it's foolish pride as opposed to etiquette that causes him to not claim unfair advantage. Maybe it's a death wish made in the throes of depression, having just laid his biological son, Bryan (David Morley), to rest. Whatever the case, it's a deeply ambiguous gesture.
What is obvious is that, in reaching this stage of semi-retirement, Barry no longer has an appropriate outlet for his aggressive tendencies. While being hotheaded and a good fighter helped him in war and subsequently at the casinos, these qualities are a liability as he attempts to blend into high society. Barry responds to Lord Bullingdon's gross disrespect by flogging him every chance he gets, nursing the young man's grudge in the process. Once Barry physically attacks him in front of several important guests, the Lyndons are effectively ostracized. Barry is trying to gain a title so that Bryan will be protected should Lady Lyndon die, but this shunning puts the kibosh on that. Meanwhile, the only thing Barry has to show for his plundering of the family fortune to buy himself status is debt, making him that much more disreputable. The man cannot win.
Like The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut, Barry Lyndon depicts Man's failure to break away from modern civilization and evolve into an asocial, hyper-individualistic superman. Currently, I feel it's most illuminating to compare Barry Lyndon with Full Metal Jacket. Both concern soldiers who hope to evolve by becoming good soldiers, something that proves grossly counter-productive. The bizarre thing about war is that it sanctions anti-social behaviour as pro-social. One can suspend his sense of empathy and sate his sadistic impulses under the pretense of serving the greater good. The truly evolved would not need any such justifications. The one sincerely evolved man in the Kubrick canon is A Clockwork Orange's Alex DeLarge, who asserts his moral evolution through rape. This is, in its purest form, the strong overpowering the weak for their own selfish gains. Through war, actions like that are rendered palatable to men who would not otherwise violate social conventions, and consequently, violence within this context, especially sexual violence, is no longer a moral act.
This is modified somewhat in Barry Lyndon. Kubrick emphasizes the senselessness of violence. We watch as armies thin themselves out by marching forward into gunfire--the traditional military formation eschewing the practical consideration of keeping its soldiers alive for the longest amount of time. Our narrator tells us that the causes of this war (the Seven Years' War) are too complex for anybody but the historians to understand. Then there are the gun duels. Barry's father is killed in one over an argument about horses in the prologue and Hordern discloses this in a brisk, matter-of-fact fashion. In each of Barry's two duels, we get looks of terror from his opponents as they realize they're in way over their heads. This senselessness goes hand-in-hand with the idea of "pro-social" violence: the society of Barry Lyndon has civilized violence, robbing it of its power as a moral act. If the outcome is fundamentally random, the strong are never able to assert their dominance over the weak, since the two can't ever be differentiated.
Another vital scene is Barry's seduction by his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton). She hides a handkerchief in her cleavage and invites him to search her person for it. He's too squeamish, so she guides his hands to her breasts. This image mirrors the shot in A Clockwork Orange where the rehabilitated Alex reaches for a model's breasts, but cannot touch them because his conditioning makes him too sick. This is essential in getting us to see Barry as not only another Alex but a conditioned Alex as well. Though Barry may have the potential to evolve, he's incapable of doing so in a civilization where passion and anger are permitted solely within the limited context of war and duelling and must be sacrificed as soon as you reach the upper tiers of the social hierarchy.
There's a strong thread of homophobia running through Kubrick's work that implicitly condemns homosexuality as deviant behaviour. From the prisoners making kissy faces at Alex in A Clockwork Orange to the spectral blowjob in The Shining to Alan Cumming's giggly hotel clerk in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's audience is often invited to sneer with disgust at the gays. The homosexual represents Man emasculated by surrounding matriarchal forces. On the hierarchy of Kubrick sexuality, he nonetheless ranks above women in that he asserts his independence from the matriarchy. It's a superficial distinction, to be sure, but in the cases of The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, a superficial distinction is the only kind we can make. Nevertheless, the homosexual remains a far cry from the hyper-individualist superman the Kubrick protagonist aspires towards. The homosexual internalizes femininity instead of rising above it. Important to note, the superman is not actually macho but androgynous (and Alex DeLarge is our only real specimen). He is simultaneously civilized (feminine) and morally independent (masculine), with neither trait coming at the expense of the other. A complete rejection of feminine values in favour of masculine ones leaves us with the ape-like Jack Torrance, and this is an evolutionary regression.
Not unlike Dr. Bill Hartford in Eyes Wide Shut, Barry is emasculated by the surrounding matriarchal society. That spark inside him that could have advanced him to the superhuman stage is snuffed out. As with Dr. Bill, his emasculation is conveyed through a number of hints about his latent homosexuality. In addition to his naivety during his cousin's seduction, Barry steals the uniform and identity of a bathing soldier who's busy bickering with his male lover. More significant is his rivalry with Lord Bullingdon, who is definitely very light in the loafers. Lord Bullingdon is overly attached to his mother, bringing to mind the Freudian explanation of male homosexuality as a failure to resolve the Oedipal complex. As Mark Crispin Miller notes in his brilliant essay "Kubrick's Anti-Reading of the Luck of Barry Lyndon", a shot in which Lady Lyndon wears a cap akin to a bonnet Barry's mother has suggests that Barry views her in similarly maternal terms, making Barry and Lord Bullingdon true adversaries. By duelling him at the end of the film, Barry is finally explicitly equated with the prissy Bullingdon.
I'm resolved to see Kubrick as a filmmaker for adolescent boys, and the values of his movies are attuned to that mindset. It's appropriate, then, that he brings an adolescent-boy sensibility to the costume epic--without a doubt the frilliest, most "faggy," most boring of genres. Barry Lyndon will undoubtedly continue to alienate many Kubrick fans while gaining him new ones, but it is not, in the end, a departure for the director. You might even call it a costume epic for people who despise costume epics and all that they represent.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner brings Barry Lyndon to Blu-ray in a gorgeous 1.78:1, 1080p transfer approved by Leon Vitali. (Ignore Warner's boilerplate cover claim of 1.85:1.) It's a notorious misnomer that the film was shot entirely in natural light--in fact, almost every daylight interior uses artificial light, either exclusively or to mold natural light to evoke the work of 18th-century masters such as William Hogarth. On the other hand, nighttime interiors were actually lit by candles alone (though some reflector boards assisted in bouncing the light appropriately), a feat that was accomplished by custom-fitting a lens developed for NASA satellite photography onto a Mitchell BNC camera. Kubrick ultimately attached a projection lens adaptor to further shorten the focal length (he loved his wide angles, as evidenced by the barrel distortions that frequently crop up in his work), and the lush HD image on this disc rewards the effort, even as minor focusing issues--an artifact of the lens's limited depth of field--come to the fore.
Leaps and bounds better than the electronic-looking fullscreen DVD, the visual presentation also fulfills the promise of the non-anamorphic widescreen 2001 remaster with rich textures (close-ups of coarse paper are invariably tactile), supple contrast (though deep black is elusive, probably because Kubrick "pushed" the whole film a stop), and dynamic colour range. It's at once filmic and painterly, as it should be; know that this is the first time I noticed the chipped-ink appearance of the white-on-black intertitles, which DVD homogenized. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track gives anachronistic soundtrack selections such as Schubert's Trio--Kubrick skipped ahead a few decades in compiling the score because, he told interviewer Michael Ciment, "there are no tragic love-themes in 18th century music"--a broader spread but for the most part maintains a healthy respect for the picture's mono origins, sounding flashy only during the siege in which Barry saves Captain Potzdorf's life. Both the narration and dialogue boast renewed resonance. There are no extras save the film's arresting theatrical trailer, in 16x9-enhanced standard-definition. Note that Barry Lyndon can only be purchased individually on Blu-ray through Amazon, although it's also available as part of the new box set "Stanley Kubrick: Limited Edition Collection." We'll be covering that in full soon. Originally published: May 30, 2011.